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Thin Blue Line: Midseason report

1/12/2011

Just as we like to re-evaluate and take stock of our wardrobes -- clothes, shoes, accessories -- at very specific points during the year (men do this too, right?), there's nothing like reflecting on and re-evaluating our fantasy assets at the midway point of the NHL regular season. There's something inspiring about being half done, isn't there? The finish line starts to come into view, ever so slightly.

So with that in mind, we offer you a midterm report card of sorts, in regard to several key defensemen, an acknowledgement of a sampling of the good, the bad and the curious, in regard to our beloved fantasy blueliners.

Top Performers

Dustin Byfuglien, Atlanta Thrashers: Bold and brash evidence that Craig Ramsay is smarter than most of us. Many, including your truly, scoffed at the head coach's preseason plan to bump Byfuglien back to defense. "You'll miss his size on offense! In front of the net!!" we howled. "Especially on the power play!" So much for all that alarmist whining. Happy to be back on the blue line, but with plenty of NHL experience playing right wing, Big Buff has met and surpassed even the most optimistic expectations. Leading the Thrashers with 41 points, including 16 goals, Byfuglien has already eclipsed his best season total as a forward. Even if his production levels off slightly, which it might, the former Blackhawk will still challenge for the Norris Trophy this spring. And he will continue to be one of the top (if not the elite) fantasy defensemen in the league.

Kris Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins: Dan Bylsma wanted Letang to shoot more this season, and the defenseman has indulged his head coach adequately … and then some. Credited with 174 shots in 2009-10, Letang is on pace for more than 250 this season. That, plus Sergei Gonchar's departure, plus a boost in confidence and maturity, equal a stellar campaign that very well may conclude with nearly 70 points in April. As long as Sidney Crosby isn't out for too long recovering from a concussion.

Nicklas Lidstrom, Detroit Red Wings: With more power-play points than any other blueliner (26), the seemingly ageless Lidstrom is proving 40 is indeed just a number. The Wings' captain is on pace for his best season since 2007-08 and could surpass the 75-point mark by the spring. If Lidstrom has lost a step, as some insist, you wouldn't notice by his numbers. And if there's been enough gas in the tank to make it this far, three more months shouldn't be an issue.

Keith Yandle, Phoenix Coyotes: After a lackluster October, Yandle had found his stride and picked up, production-wise, where he had left off last season. Once December hit, he kicked it up another notch. The only blueliner on the Coyotes' top power-play unit, Yandle leads his team with 31 points, 16 of them on the man advantage. It doesn't hurt that the Coyotes are scoring more goals as a collective these days either. As for Yandle's fantasy value moving forward, the recent acquisition of defenseman Michal Rozsival from the New York Rangers poses little threat.

Dan Boyle, San Jose Sharks: From a fantasy perspective, Boyle is "money," as the Vegas types would say. Season in and season out, the veteran defenseman puts up the points, logs tons of ice time (leads all D-men is this category) and shoots the puck more than the clear majority. It doesn't matter that the Sharks are scoring fewer goals as a whole this season, the veteran Boyle still finds a way to get it done.

Just missed: Tobias Enstrom, Atlanta Thrashers; Lubomir Visnovsky, Anaheim Ducks; John-Michael Liles, Colorado Avalanche

Top 75 Defensemen

Note: Victoria Matiash's top 75 defensemen are ranked for their expected performance in ESPN standard leagues from this point on, not on the statistics that have already been accrued. ESPN standard stats include goals, assists, power-play points, shots on goal, plus/minus, penalty minutes and average time on ice. Last week's ranking is indicated in parentheses.

1. Dustin Byfuglien, Atl (1)
2. Nicklas Lidstrom, Det (4)
3. Dan Boyle, SJ (2)
4. Mike Green, Was (3)
5. Zdeno Chara, Bos (5)
6. Kris Letang, Pit (6)
7. Tobias Enstrom, Atl (7)
8. Drew Doughty, LA (8)
9. John-Michael Liles, Col (9)
10. Lubomir Visnovsky, Ana (10)
11. Christian Ehrhoff, Van (11)
12. Brian Rafalski, Det (13)
13. Alexander Edler, Van (14)
14. James Wisniewski, Mon (15)
15. Keith Yandle, Pho (19)
16. Stephane Robidas, Dal (16)
17. Alex Goligoski, Pit (17)
18. Jack Johnson, LA (18)
19. Tomas Kaberle, Tor (20)
20. Shea Weber, Nsh (21)
21. Duncan Keith, Chi (12)
22. Kimmo Timonen, Phi (23)
23. Niklas Kronwall, Det (22)
24. Mark Giordano, Cgy (25)
25. Brent Burns, Min (27)
26. Joni Pitkanen, Car (26)
27. Bryan McCabe, Fla (24)
28. Erik Karlsson, Ott (30)
29. Sergei Gonchar, Ott (28)
30. Dion Phaneuf, Tor (32)
31. Brent Seabrook, Chi (34)
32. Roman Hamrlik, Mon (31)
33. Brian Campbell, Chi (33)
34. Jay Bouwmeester, Cgy (29)
35. Kurtis Foster, Edm (36)
36. Kevin Shattenkirk, Col (35)
37. Matt Carle, Phi (37)
38. Marc Staal, NYR (45)
39. Dennis Seidenberg, Bos (44)
40. Ryan Suter, Nsh (47)
41. Cam Fowler, Ana (41)
42. P.K. Subban, Mon (43)
43. John Carlson, Was (42)
44. Kevin Bieksa, Van (55)
45. Dennis Wideman, Fla (38)
46. Paul Martin, Pit (48)
47. Tyler Myers, Buf (40)
48. Joe Corvo, Car (46)
49. Andrew MacDonald, NYI (53)
50. Jordan Leopold, Buf (51)
51. Carlo Colaiacovo, StL (49)
52. Andrej Meszaros, Phi (50)
53. Alex Pietrangelo, StL (54)
54. Erik Johnson, StL (39)
55. Ed Jovanovski, Pho (52)
56. Brett Clark, TB (57)
57. Francois Beauchemin, Tor (60)
58. Anton Babchuk, Cgy (58)
59. Cody Franson, Nsh (56)
60. Adrian Aucoin, Pho (66)
61. Andy Greene, NJ (61)
62. Chris Pronger, Phi (65)
63. Michael Del Zotto, NYR (67)
64. Daniel Girardi, NYR (63)
65. Pavel Kubina, TB (62)
66. Marc-Andre Bergeron, TB (59)
67. Jamie McBain, Car (76)
68. Filip Kuba, Ott (68)
69. Michal Rozsival, Pho (69)
70. Toni Lydman, Ana (76)
71. Matt Gilroy, NYR (70)
72. Tom Gilbert, Edm (71)
73. Anton Stralman, Cls (64)
74. Steve Kampfer, Bos (74)
75. Ryan Whitney, Edm (75)

Surprises

Jack Johnson, Los Angeles Kings: Overshadowing former fantasy darling Drew Doughty in production and worth, Johnson is suddenly morphing into the offensive defenseman many thought he would eventually become. His minus-5 is a mild blemish, but I like that Johnson averages more than 24 minutes of ice time a game. And the 23-year-old has been beautifully consistent; Johnson's second half of the season should be relatively identical to the first.

Brent Burns, Minnesota Wild: Talent and skill have never been concerns with Burns. His confidence and physical health, on the other hand, have been problems in the past. Not this season. Even before Marek Zidlicky was knocked aside by a serious shoulder injury, Burns was displaying what he's capable of when unencumbered, physically or psychologically. With 12 goals and 14 assists, the 25-year-old seems to be having a blast out there. Now, with Zidlicky questionable for the rest of the season, Burns is a mainstay on the Wild's top power-play unit.

Marc Staal, New York Rangers: Citing a distinct improvement in strength and maturity, the Rangers are pleased as punch with how far Staal has come. With 11 points through a recent stint of 15 games, his fantasy owners were equally thrilled. But the production has dried up significantly since then. And with a freshly chastised Michael Del Zotto set to return from the AHL, Staal's numbers may not recover as thoroughly as some would like. Apparently Del Zotto has learned (and put into practice) patience and discipline with the puck as a member of the Connecticut Whale, just as Rangers coach John Tortorella wanted. We shall see.

Kevin Shattenkirk, Colorado Avalanche: It's as if he didn't know any better. Once given the opportunity to contribute on the Avs' power play, the young gentleman affectionately referred to as "Cap'n Kirk" burst forth and racked up 18 points in 15 games through November and December. Unfortunately, since then, the rookie has come back to Earth with a thud, garnering one lonely assist in 10 contests. Shattenkirk was a great sell-high candidate three weeks ago; now -- not so much. On the upside, if you're stuck with Shattenkirk, he's still being used as a staple with the man advantage and a turnaround is more than likely. To a more modest level, of course. Furthermore, the latest foot injury is reportedly no biggie either. Just soreness.

Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators: Even as the Senators continue to spiral in the direction of a high draft pick, the young Karlsson insists on contributing regularly. Sergei Gonchar (more on him below) was supposed to be the Senators' fantasy gem, not this 20-year-old. Alright, "gem" might be a slight overstatement -- especially when considering the youngster's minus-13 -- but Karlsson is second only to forward Daniel Alfredsson in points, and has been a bright spot during an otherwise very gloomy campaign. And rumor has it that once the playoffs seem realistically out of reach (soon), general manager Bryan Murray plans to experiment and skate the kids even more. Imagine what Karlsson will be capable of once there's no pressure whatsoever.

Just missed: Jordan Leopold, Buffalo Sabres

Disappointments

Mike Green, Washington Capitals: Although he's still been one of the more valuable fantasy commodities around, we can't help but feel a little let down by Green's output this year. After averaging more than a point per game in the past two seasons, Green's 21 in 36 games strikes as very mediocre. The drop-off isn't all the 25-year-old's fault; nagging injuries have been an issue, and the Washington Capitals' entire back end has been a bit shaky altogether this season. The good news is, with seven points in his last seven games, Green seems to be in the midst of finding his groove again. If you can entice a league-mate into offloading the Caps D-man via trade (unlikely, admittedly), now would be the time.

Sergei Gonchar, Ottawa Senators: His reputation for being a dud in his first year with a new team is clearly well earned. Whatever minor benefit Gonchar's fantasy owners might derive from his 19 points is quickly diminished by his minus-20. Yowza. As for the chicken/egg argument regarding whether the Senators' poor play has made Gonchar worse or vice versa, does it really matter? Let Gonchar take his mulligan on this season and look forward to the next. The Russian veteran has two years left on his contract with the Sens.

Duncan Keith, Chicago Blackhawks: He seems a bit tired. And frustrated. Blame the Stanley Cup hangover, if you will; or the offseason departure of several key teammates. Whatever the case, Keith is not the same player or fantasy performer as last season. And with zero points in his last eight games, the state of affairs appears bleak. However, it's not a situation completely without hope: Keith will continue to bust his caboose and battle each and every game while logging bucketloads of minutes. His fantasy owners simply need to readjust their expectations.

Andy Greene, New Jersey Devils: There's little purpose in going on about how bad the Devils are this year. The Devils' struggles, and all the accompanying drama, aren't news. Well, that's why Greene hasn't been much of an asset. And unless the Devils enjoy a renaissance to some degree, Greene will continue to bring more harm (minus-23) than good to your fantasy roster.

Erik Johnson, St. Louis Blues: The Blues wanted Johnson to develop more of an overall game, involving a more balanced approach between contributing offensively and defensively. And he has. That might make Johnson a better hockey player, but it throws a tub of cold water on his fantasy value.

Just missed: Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings; Tyler Myers, Buffalo Sabres; Anton Stralman, Columbus Blue Jackets

Victoria Matiash is a fantasy hockey analyst for ESPN.com.